More than half a century after the 34th president left office, book publishers have built a thriving Eisenhower-industrial complex. Every year brings forth at least one major new Eisenhower book — the flow is so consistent that the release of a traditional biography no longer seems to excite. Since the trove of Eisenhower historical documents isn’t expanding, publishers instead seek some seductive twist for each new volume.
In Evan Thomas’s case, the twist is to present Dwight Eisenhower as a president with hidden strategic depths that were rarely acknowledged by his contemporaries. Eisenhower’s gentle manner and sometimes bumbling style were, in Thomas’s telling, tactics calculated to throw off opponents. Poker was said to be Ike’s favorite game, and for Thomas the bluff becomes the book’s prevailing metaphor. He argues that Eisenhower’s savvy gamesmanship kept the world from destroying itself.
The bluff is a handy organizational tool, providing a theme for most of the chapters. There’s a chapter titled “Deception,” another “Don’t Worry, I’ll Confuse Them” and another “The Strong Say Nothing.”
Nearly all Eisenhower biographers have struggled with what seem to be endless contradictions in the president’s behavior, public and private statements, and even character. By citing the bluff tactic, Thomas offers deft and mostly persuasive explanations for the conflicts where more literal-minded historians simply throw up their hands. For instance, the author argues that Ike sometimes put forth arguments at odds with his own beliefs merely to confuse the press or stifle a colleague. Thomas points out, for example, that Eisenhower made incompatible remarks about nuclear weapons and concludes that “to argue over which was the ‘real Eisenhower’ — the nuclear brinksman or the peace lover — as many historians have done and still do, is to miss the point.”
Yet the bluff theme also has major flaws. For starters, it’s hardly new. Thomas acknowledges that for more than a generation historians have argued that a canny strategist lay beneath Eisenhower’s poor-farm-boy facade. Second, while Eisenhower was the first president to have something close to the fate of mankind riding on his poker moves, nearly all presidents have faced momentous and confounding strategic challenges. Did they not bluff, too, and were they not better or worse at it than Eisenhower? Thomas never asks. And because he rarely shows us Eisenhower playing actual poker, the metaphor seems somewhat flimsy, even arbitrary. The president’s card game of choice while in officeapparently was bridge (and he berated partners so aggressively that almost no one would play with him).
Moreover, interpreting the entire Eisenhower presidency as a long series of bluffed poker hands has the effect of equalizing all conflicts and validating all solutions. Of course Eisenhower deserves praise for using cunning tactics to prevent dozens of Cold War standoffs from flaring into full-scale war. Even if one accepts the debatable proposition that covert actions should be counted as bluffs, it doesn’t necessarily follow that, say, overthrowing the leftist government of Guatemala in 1954 best served the United States’s interests in Latin America over the long or even medium term. Sometimes foreign policy just doesn’t fit into poker metaphors.
Most frustrating is that Thomas doesn’t need the gimmick. “Ike’s Bluff” is a thoroughly researched, tightly organized and briskly written biography that can stand on its own. Thomas is especially skilled at bringing characters of the era to life — such as CIA officer Richard Bissell and intelligence chief Walter Bedell Smith — who in too many other books are flat names on a page.
The book is at its best near the end, with its gripping account of the U.S.-Soviet negotiations after the downing of a U-2 spy plane and the capture of pilot Gary Powers in May 1960. The finest bluffing in the world was not going to beat the hand Nikita Khrushchev was holding: With the life of a U.S. pilot on the line, Eisenhower was pinned down by impossible choices.He risked escalating the crisis if he admitted that he had authorized the U-2 spying, but he looked weak and duplicitous if he didn’t admit it. After a showdown with Khrushchev in Paris, the president shouted in a limo, cooked steaks in the embassy garden and choked back tears on his arrival home, prompting Thomas to conclude that “Eisenhower felt a personal sense of defeat and at times despair.” With his bluff called, the president folded, figuratively and emotionally.
Thomas’s studied attempt to to understand Eisenhower’s presidency as a poker game — whatever the shortcomings of the conceit — forced the author to thoroughly explore the depths of the president’s personality, and it pays off. Just as Eisenhower’s signature political skill was making the electorate feel that a trustworthy man was in charge, so too does Thomas persuade the reader of “Ike’s Bluff” to trust his judgment of his subject.
President Eisenhower’s Secret Battle to Save the World
By Evan Thomas
Little, Brown. 484 pp. $29.99.